Show of hands, who has been told, at least once, not to judge a book by its cover? Thought so. Common widsom, but, when applied to the covers of romance novels, whole other story. How so, you ask? Let’s fond out.
Even though I dearly love my Kindle, and the Kindle app on my phone is a true lifesaver, there comes a time when I need a paper book in hand, and nothing else will do. That has been building over the last week or so, since all of my owned paperbacks and hardcovers are in storage, thanks to our recent move. Okay, there is one, but if I read that one, then I am Out Of Paperbacks until we tackle the storage unit, and that is not a risk I am willing to take. ( Does anybody else keep a security book? Just me? Anybody? Anybody? Beuller?)
This means, of course, that it’s library time. Thankfully, I live on a city with a pretty good library system, so, when I headed to the library, with the intent of picking out three historical romance novels to see me through the long weekend, I figured this would be easy pickings. I had Goodreads, to make sure I wasn’t jumping, unwary, into the middle of a series, and it didn’t take long at all to find three books that fit the bill.
One was a standalone (I can never have enough standalones, hint, hint) while the other two were the first in their respective series. Two of the authors, I had read before, and wanted to read again. The original publication dates of these three books spanned about a decade and a half, which provided for the variety I was looking for on that front, and yet, all three books had two things in common.
One, they were all set in the early nineteenrh century, but that’s par for the coursr, and not our topic of discussion this week. Sure, my mental Almack’s is probably going to feel a tad crowded by the start of the new week, but there’s also the medieval series I’m reading on my Kindle, to space things out, so that’s not what stands out the most to me about these books.
What does stand out most? In a word, man titty. Chests. Pectorals. Shirts that, if present, are not entirely on the body of the man who is wearing them, or wearing most of them. Wearing part of them? Hard to tell. Point is, there are bare chests on three out of three paperbacks, and I have mixed feelings about that.
I have nothing against the male chest. There is frequently an exposed one in my own home, courtesy of my real life romance hero, and I have no complaints on that front, pun intended. Nor do I have any qualms about the depiction of the human form, in whole or partial undress, for artistic purposes. So why the mixed feelings? I am asking myself as well as you.
On the one hand, there’s marketing. Growing up, my father was an art director at an advertising agency, so I do understand the importance of the package reflecting what’s inside. A well toned male torso says “good looking hero in this book,” and, for that, it’s effective. Show of hands, who has ever picked up a book they might have otherwise overlooked, because they liked what they saw on the cover? Not limiting the question to shirtless dudes, either. Adirondack chairs, cartoon dogs, tattooed chicks in tank tops, weilding weapons, Amish bonnets, cowboy hats, powdered wigs, whatever floats your boat (including actual boats.) Uh huh. Thought so. Score one for the design team.
It’s also a code for those who handle the books, but may not neccessarily read them. We’re talking booksellers, librarians, etc, who deal with oodles and oodles of books, and, hey, coding like this comes in handy. This partly explains the proliferation of illustrated clinch covers, once upon a time, when single title (as in non-Harlequin/Mills & Boon) were the new kids in town.
They’re also a form of coding for people who don’t read or handle the books: the person next to us on the subway (or in Subway) or the doctor’s waiting room, our non-romance reading friends and family, etc. Ask us what the book is about, and many of us are likely to reel off the plot, gush about a favorite character, stan hard for the author or series, explain the magic or history (or both) of the setting, and so on, but how much of that is represented on the cover?
As always, the answer was “it depends,” as bare chests and content are not mutually exclusive, and a naked pec cover can as easily grace a PG-13 book as outright erotica can bear title and author’s name on a plain fabric background. Fashions in cover art come and go with sometimes dizzying frequency. Clinch covers one year, heroines facing away from the viewer the next, landscape covers after that, then icon covers where we see a hat, gun, or set of cufflinks between the names of the book and the person who wrote it, and none of those change what lies between the covers.
When we left the library, my friend asked if I had a cover for when I want to read the books around others. I told her I do, but I’m not sure if I will use it. I am a big girl, old enough to read what I want, and I don’t need to explain or defend it to anybody. Using a cover does add a bit of mystery -whatever is this person reading?- so there is that. I suppose that I will decide when the time comes.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What trends in book covers do you love? Hate? Love to hate? Do covers affect what books you read, where? Do you ever use homemade or commercial book covers? Do you flash the cover the publisher gave it, everytime, everywhere? Pull up a seat in our comment section and twll us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.